Archive for the ‘Novels’ Category

The Earthsea cycle of novels and short stories, by Ursula K. LeGuin are among my favorite stories and a huge influence on my own writing. When I was a kid there was a battered old copy of “A Wizard of Earthsea” lying around which I finally read when I was ten or eleven. I’ve been hooked ever since, and that book remains one of my all time favorite novels (The image above, while also apparently used later for a boxed set of the original Earthsea trilogy, is also the cover of the copy of “A Wizard of Earthsea” I read as a kid and which I still own).

As might be deduced from the name, the world of Earthsea is a place of islands. The central grouping is known as the Archipelago, the outer areas are the four Reaches, one for each direction, and then you also have the Kargad lands, a few islands that are home to a separate  culture and ethnicity of people. The Earthsea setting is a little different from many other fantasy worlds-rather than the Middle Ages, the technology level and culture is more similar to an Iron Age one. Also, aside from the Nordic-like Kargs, the peoples of the Archipelago and Reaches are all dark-skinned peoples (with the possible exception of the people of Osskil who seem to have an Eastern European vibe. Most of the cultures of Earthsea are at least somewhat maritime; sailing, fishing and magic relating to the wind and sea are all important elements. Most of the residents of the Archipelago and Reaches are collectively referred to as Hardic Peoples, after the Hardic language they speak which is based on the True Speech.

The magic of Earthsea is very much a part of the world and one of my favorite aspects of the story. The magic is based on the True Speech, the language of the dragons and the tongue used to raise the islands from the sea. In this language all things and all people have a True Name that defines their nature. Further, it is impossible to lie in the Old Language (though the dragons, who are sometimes spoken of almost as embodiments of the language, are able to twist the truth in their speech) and so when a person of power speaks a thing in that tongue, reality is forced to comply and by changing the name of a thing its form can be shifted. People’s true names are generally given/revealed in a naming ceremony at the age of thirteen which is typically conducted by a wizard. People do not reveal their true names, except to people they trust implicitly, each person having a publicly known “use-name”, or sometimes several.  Magic, especially in the early books, is primarily the province of men; all of the full wizards are male and the majority of female magic-users seen are “village witches” with limited abilities and very little training. Women are bared from the wizard’s school on Roke Island, though it is revealed in later works that women helped found it. There are also sorcerers, a sort of intermediate rank of the Roke school between apprentice and wizard and a variety of folks with specific magical talents, such as the weather-workers found on many sailing ships and folks with skill in mending broken objects.

There is a strong element of Taoist and other Eastern type philosophy in the Earthsea stories, especially as regards the use of power and action versus inaction. Although I disagree with some of the philosophic concepts found in the series, they are all quite interesting and especially at the time of the original book’s publication relatively unusual for Western fantasy literature.

The original Earthsea series was a trilogy consisting of “A Wizard of Earthsea,” “The Tombs of Atuan” and “The Farthest Shore.” Years after the publication of TFS, “Tehanu” was added to what became the Earthsea Cycle, followed yet more years later by “The Other Wind” and the “Tales of Earthsea” short story collection. These latter works are somewhat different in tone and theme than the previous novels and some of them could be seen as “re-writing” a bit of Earthsea history. Or at least, presenting us with history quite out of tune with the impressions of things given in earlier books, having to do largely with the role of women, the history of the School on Roke and Hardic wizardry as a whole and also certain matters of the afterlife and human/dragon relations. I’m not personally quite as partial to the newer works, though as a writer I can sympathize with a writer wanting to use existing creations to express a changed or expanded worldview, but I did find the newer books a bit jarring.  The somewhat negative light in which the Hardic wizards and Masters of Roke are cast in these newer books is a little off-putting to me, but I still enjoyed them. I think that in the end, “A Wizard of Earthsea” will always be the epitome of what the world of Earthsea is to me.

The influence of Earthsea on my own writing is considerable. My word choice and style especially when writing high fantasy are influenced by LeGuin’s style in the Earthsea novels. The stories are also partially responsible for my obsession with the number nine and particularly with the idea of magic divided into nine forms with nine masters, since the school of Roke has Nine Masters, each with a different specialty.  The stories have also left me with a love of sea-faring wizard imagery that I indulge in my stories now and again.

 

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So, been a while since the last post. I’ve started working again, so that’s taking up a bit of my time and/or energy. It hasn’t been a total loss though…I revised my last short story, “Galateon” and after a run past a couple pairs of eyes to check for errors I’ll be getting it ready to send off, probably starting with Clarksworld.

My next trick will be to figure out exactly what happens next in “The Dawn Prism.” Actually, I know more or less what happens, I just need to figure out how and with exactly what.

At the same time I am mentally percolating the beginnings of a story involving the Jersey Devil.  I saw a Jersey Devil movie a week or two ago and while it wasn’t that great, it did inspire me. I plan to use the Mother Leeds legend and the Leeds devil to explore themes of shame.  In light of this, I ask anybody who is from New Jersey or has otherwise spent time in the Pine Barrens and/or is well versed in the legend to share any personal stories, insights, regional information or anything else you feel might be helpful for or should be included in a story set in the Barrens and dealing with the legend. I want to get the feel of the place right on all sensory levels, but I’ve never been there so its more difficult.

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So, last night I was watching “The Dead Zone” on my beloved Netflix instant viewing and it got me thinking about a thing I’ve thought about before. Stephen King is (rightly) known as the King of Horror. However, a significant portion of his work is not necessarily, in my estimation, horror. Now as many of you know I have certain issues with the whole concept of genres, especially in their capacity as marketing tools. Horror is notoriously one of the most difficult in this regard because horror is an emotion, not really a genre. Any work may invoke horror or have elements that do so, and indeed many stories, books and movies have horror or horrible elements yet are not considered part of the Horror genre.  So, largely for amusement but also as an exploration of horror and the concept of genre, let’s talk a little about some of Stephen Kings works and why I don’t necessarily consider them horror (or at least not all horror.)

The Dark Tower series: King’s magnum opus and also one that most will agree does not fall entirely within the confines of the genre of horror, especially not into its specific sub-genres. While containing many horror elements, the series also has strong content of the Fantasy and Western genres as well, and even a number of elements that could broadly be counted as Science Fiction. Most particularly, the story is in large part a Quest tale, a structure or story type not usually considered part of the Horror genre.

The Eyes of the Dragon: A relatively lesser known work, The Eyes of the Dragon is set in a medieval-esque world and is primarily a Fantasy novel with a strong “fairytale” style and and plotline. It shares very little in structure or tone with what most folks think of as Horror, despite the presence of King’s oft-used, many-named villain who in this story is known simply as Flagg. 

The Dead Zone: Certainly more “horrible” in many ways than the last two, with a modern setting and with the relatively common, sometime-horror trope of psychic abilities, to me The Dead Zone is still not a story focused primarily on generating fear, terror or horror (though the sequences involving the Castle Rock Killer could be considered horror of the psychological/serial killer sub-genre.) I feel the term “supernatural thriller” would probably fit the story better. Really, the story has more political elements than horrific ones and could also, I feel, be viewed as a political thriller with a relatively light speculative element.

Firestarter: Like The Dead Zone, Firestarted is set in modern times (as is the norm for most works marketed under the Horror genre) and involves characters with mental/psychic powers. However also much like The Dead Zone there is little emphasis on creating fear, horror, or terror, though there are some scenes of such. Given the themes of government experimentation with drugs and the altering of people’s abilities it could, I feel, just as easily be classed as Science Fiction and/or Thriller as horror.

The Talisman(written with Peter Straub): Much like the Dark Tower series to which it is (even more so than most of King’s works) so strongly tied, The Talisman is, to me, more of a Fantasy Quest story than a Horror novel. While there are, as always, horrible occurrences and such, the book does not create a pervasive mood of dread or fear: the focus is rather on the achieving of the protagonists goals.

Rage: This hard to find short novel features absolutely no supernatural elements and, in my view, almost no horror elements; to me, it’s really more of a social drama.

I could add several more, but you get the picture. Now, before you say to me, “don’t you think anything he wrote was horror?” I’ll respond with a resounding, of course. IT is in my opinion  the apotheosis (a word King himself loves) of the “Kids face horror on summer vacation” story. Pet Sematary is unremittingly disturbing and chilling. The Shining and ‘Salem’s Lot are masterful takes on classic horror tropes (The Haunted House and The Vampire, respectively.) Most of his short stories that I’ve read are also much more squarely in the Horror genre (which is, I have to feel, always the most closely wedded to the short form.) But the thing that is so interesting to me is, I believe pretty strongly that if the books I mention above had been written by someone other than Stephen King, they would likely have ended up in a different section of the bookstore. This to me is an indication that genre is at least as much about marketing as it is about anything else.

Genre is defined in different ways by different people; by content (the definition I find most useful and easiest to understand) by structure, by intent, by (strangely to me) “audience.” To me, the main use of genre names is as a shorthand to quickly and easily indicate to someone a few general bits of information about a book or movie or story. However, genres like Fantasy and Horror are so broad and contain so many permutations that their usefulness in this regard, alone, can be limited. If I tell you I am writing a Fantasy novel, all that really tells you more or less for sure is that there is probably magic of some kind in it.  It could also have elves and dragons living in a world approximating the Dark Ages, but it could just as easily take place in near-future New York and feature punks with supernatural powers. So we have terms like High Fantasy, Modern Fantasy, Hard and Soft Science Fiction etc to help us communicate a little more specifically. However, trouble ensues when people try to set absolute limits on these concepts and end up still have miscommunication. Likewise some genres/labels, like Magic Realism or Slipstream are either so broad or so poorly defined and contentious as to create more problems than they solve.

This is why when asked what I write, I prefer to offer a sample, rather than trying to explain it in terms of genre, for each story is a mix of elements that no one word can describe.

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So, I’ve been sort of tagged by the lovely Meredith in one of these question-answering type things. Here are the rules:The Tag rules: 1. You must post the rules! 2. Answer the questions and then create eleven new questions to ask the people you’ve tagged. 3. Tag seven (because it’s a magical number) people and link to them. 4. Let them know you’ve tagged them.

Like Meredith, I’m going to post all the questions asked by my tagger but answer only 11 of them.

  1. How many books did you read last year? What was your favorite genre? I’m not sure how many books I read last year, but it was quite a few.  I don’t really have a favorite much-of-anything but while I probably prefer various forms of fantasy and horror, last year’s book-binge did include a good bit of science fiction, mostly older stuff, and also some “literary” items like “On the Road.”
  2. Which popular genre have you tried and tried but can never really get into?
  3. Which literary character is most like your ideal spouse? Which is most like your actual spouse /  significant other? Why?
  4. Besides writing and reading, what is your favorite pastime? Probably some combination of watching movies/television shows/anime and music. However, to me its all basically part of the same thing.
  5. If you could play God and change one thing about the world, what would it be? Limitation: you can’t mess with free agency.
  6. Which writer’s conferences have you attended? If you had unlimited time and money, which conferences would you attend? I haven’t attended any and even if I have unlimited resources I’m not sure I would. I think arts are things you learn mostly by doing and consuming; I feel I get as much out of exchanging critiques and thoughts with my fellow writers as I would from anything like that.
  7. You’re on a talk show, talking about your newest bestseller. The host announces a surprise guest: the author you’ve always been inspired by, but have never met. Who comes out on stage? What is your reaction?
  8. If you could design the cover for your WIP, what would it look like?
  9. Which literary villain scared you the most Hmm…I’m not sure about scaring but as far as in recent memory, I think I agree with Meredith that Dolores Umbridge is one of the most evil and disturbing of villains. Though less powerful than Voldemort, she probably is, in many ways, more evil (and without even a good excuse for it.)
  10. Pantser or outliner? I’d say I’m a mix of the two. I started out more or less pure “panster” but as time has passed I’ve started to plan things out a bit more. However my “outlines” are often mostly in my head, or in the form of some basic notes and a lot of it depends on the story. I haven’t outlined my novel…I’ve basically been planning out each chapter as it comes, though I do know, broadly, some of what’s going to happen in the future.
  11. Which one of your characters would most benefit the world, if made real? Probably Emrys or Zerieth.
  1. Plotter or Panster?
  2. Who is your fave character and why? I couldn’t begin to answer this in terms of other people’s characters. As far as my own characters, right this second probably Zerieth, the sociopathic Red Road wizard turned Hierophant of the White Road, mostly because he is a character I find easy to write…his personality and motivations have similarities to my own and he represents an archetype I am quite comfortable with.
  3. Name 2 things within arms reach. My notebook, and “House of Leaves” the book I’m currently reading. Would usually also include my teacup but I haven’t had my tea yet.
  4. Date with a celebrity, who would you pick?
  5. What is your fave song? I don’t have one, but the Pink Floyd epic composition “Echoes” has a special place in my heart.
  6. What genre do you write in? There are three main, broad “streams” in my writing. One is “high fantasy”, including The Universe of the Nine Roads but I have and will again write high fantasy in other worlds. The second is modern-setting fantasy, ranging from relatively light-hearted adventures like my “T&H” stories to darker near-horror stuff like “Silent and Still They Wait.” The third is Dark Fantasy/”horror”/”Rustpunk.” Most of this stuff most folks would just call “horror” but I don’t see some of them that way…but some are pretty straightforward horror like “The Worm of the Waste.”
  7. Fave thing to do other than write?
  8. Coolest thing you’ve ever done?
  9. Coolest place you’ve ever been?
  10. Favorite quote? I’m not one for picking favorites, but a there is a quote…an exchange really…that’s stuck with me, between the characters Shinji Ikari and Rei Ayanami in “End of Evangelion” and it runs thus: “Where is my dream?” “It is a continuation of reality.” “Where is my reality?” “It is at the end of your dream.”

And now I hereby tag Daniel, Fridge-kun, Julie, Fred, redux, Ta-kun and Jennifer

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So, some while back I’d rented the actual DVD of the classic movie “The Wicker Man” which I’d never seen but knew I needed to. It’s a great movie that I also recommend, as long as you can handle the mild trauma of Christopher Lee in drag. Anyway, that movie put me in the mood for British horror and “pagan” rituals and so when today I decided to spend a little time, as I often do lately, simultaneously reading and watching stuff-mostly low-budget horror films-on Netflix instant viewing, my attention was attracted by a movie called Wake Wood, which I had noticed before and seen being compared to “The Wicker Man.”

So I watched it and I was quite pleased. The film isn’t life-changing, but for folks who like British atmosphere and Celtic/Brythonic “paganism” its very enjoyable. The story revolves around a couple who have lost their small daughter to a very vicious and somewhat graphically depicted dog attack. They move to the small town of Wake Wood and over the course of events come to learn that the residents of the town are familiar with an ancient ritual which can bring a dead person back to life-but only for three days and for those three days, the resurrected person must remain within the bounds of the township. 

Of course, things wind up going terribly wrong, but I won’t go into the details. The movie features a really great performance by the ever-wonderful Timothy “Peter Pettigrew” Spall as the leader of the town (who is also the one who performs the main parts of the ritual) and some interesting, if lightly touched upon mystical concepts. I didn’t find it especially scary, but then it takes a lot to have that effect on me, though the squeamish should be warned there are some relatively bloody scenes, some of them involving animals, children or both. I wasn’t bothered by any of them but I, usually, have quite a high tolerance. The story and the acting are very nice and the end, now I think about it, is pretty chilling. I definitely recommend it. It is also, I came to find out, the first film produced in 30 years by Britain’s venerable Hammer production studio, responsible for so many great horror movies in the 70s. I think this film lives up to its august predecessors well.

On a brief writing note, I made a bit of progress with a section of “The Dawn Prism.” I finished a 2100-word sequence which may end up being part of Chapter 6, all of Chapter 7, or part of Chapter 7, depending on how things go, and overall, I’m pretty pleased with it. Next up, a brief stop in the city of Vierlion and then, off to the land of Kazephyria!

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So, lately I have seen and participated in a lot of discussion about what makes a “good” story, narrative theory, story structure, audience appeal all those sorts of things. I’ve developed some theories and thoughts of my own along the way.

My personal belief is that all art is entirely subjective, or so much so as to make no never mind. The “good” and “bad” of art are measurable only within the context of the minds and hearts of each person that experiences them. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure and all that. That can be hard to take for a lot of writers because of course we all want people-as many people as possible in fact-to enjoy our work. And most of us want editors to buy it. So, some folks embark on an alchemical quest for the Philosopher’s Stone of audience appeal and effective narrative, trying to determine the elements and structures that will give a piece of fiction maximum appeal.

This is not without merit. There are commonalities among many stories, especially from within a given culture. There are what I think of as “story types”, plot structures or themes or genre elements or combinations thereof that have been used, separated and admixed time and time again to great results.  There are things that a pretty fair chunk of people find compelling or conversely repulsive and these can certainly be used to a storyteller’s advantage.  I enjoy a bit of analysis as much as the next person and it can be informative, but I don’t think there is any secret formula to be found.

For myself, as far as my writing goes, I tend instead, since I feel it’s all a matter of opinion anyway, to be guided mostly by my own opinions and tastes-to write, essentially, the stories I myself would like to read, for a couple of reasons.  One is quite practical: I enjoy stories that are well loved by many others, so using my own taste as a guide will, it would seem, produce stories that others will enjoy as well. The other reason is quite simply that, when I try to write things other than what I want to write, or in ways I don’t wish to write them, my progress slows to a crawl and I am uniformly unhappy with-even unsettled by-what I produce. Even if ones goal is to be a professional writer, in the sense of making a living at it…to me, given that there are easier to achieve and nearly as profitable ways to make a living involving producing a certain particular product (or providing a certain service) for a certain market, it seems the desire to make ones living via a creative endeavor would be based at least somewhat on wanting to do so through ones own creativity and by making what you want to make rather than what you are simply handed blueprints for.

For me, I think the closest I can come to some sort of definition of the secret to a successful story is simply a story that its maker loves and believes in. Or alternatively, at the least, one into which it’s creator has poured thought, effort and consideration. Likewise related to what I was saying above about products, for me the closest I can come to a definition of “bad” art is art that seems to me to have been made merely as a product, without it’s making caring about it or putting effort or thought (beyond the minimum needed to put it together) into it. The example that always springs to my mind on this is many of the original movies from the “SyFy” channel. Particularly the giant this-that-or-the-other ones.  They are highly formulaic…which in and of itself is okay; I’ve written formulaic stories, for a variety of reasons. But they feel, to me, as if that’s all anyone involved with them was doing: following the formula in order to produce a product to be sold. They don’t feel like works of art that someone created out of a desire to do so, they feel like they came out of a factory.

As to what I like, what is in my subjective view a “good” or “successful” story, well I could go on for pages listing all the things I love or find intriguing or enlightening. My tastes are quite broad; almost any type of story in any media that has a speculative, magical, supernatural or philosophic aspect is generally one I’m going to enjoy or feel enriched by to at least some extent. I don’t have requirements for what a piece of art must have or do in order for me to enjoy it, although most literature/movies/whatever with no speculative element whatsoever are of less interest to me. Usually the non-fantastical artworks I enjoy are quirky or unusual independent movies that touch on concepts of interest to me, such as growing up/coming of age, gay culture, spirituality or overall cultural issues, especially when they are critical of aspects of the culture I have issues with, such as forced schooling or some aspects of organized religion. I don’t have a lot of taste for most comedy works, especially more recent ones. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story whose primary purpose was to be humorous and most of the comedy movies and television shows of the last couple of decades are neither funny nor interesting to me; I do like older comedic works and a lot of non-American ones, like Monty Python and the humorous elements in many anime series.I enjoy everything from extreme horror to family dramas and back again and most love things which inspire a sense of wonder or show me a new perspective on spiritual and philosophic issues and I’m a sucker for heavy atmosphere…I love being shown a glimpse into other worlds and frames of existence, or parts or sub parts of this one that are rarely seen or paid attention too. I like possibilities, and variety and that is why I have no specific criteria for a “good” story.

In the end, while learning about literary theory (or the theory behind whatever art we pursue) is a good thing, there is no magic bullet for success and at the end of the day I believe our best guide for our work is ourselves, the works we love, and the people around us.

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I’ve just updated the character profile page for Zerieth, one of my central UotNRs characters. Also, I’ve been thinking about a small detail that will come into play in the next chapters of “The Dawn Prism.” As I’ve already mentioned, my characters will be traveling to a land that is strongly Asian/anime flavored in design, which I have dubbed Kazephyria. Quite possibly the entire continent will have different Asian/anime influences…this place is a land of airships and navies with a bit of a proclivity toward the Blue Road. I’ve already decided that I’m going to give the humans native to the land slight touches of anime-characterness in their appearance…round eyes, delicate mouths that sort of thing. But there is something else I’m toying with, that relates to a concept that already exists in the world.

As many of you know, in the UotNRs most wizards, especially those with a very strong connection to their Road have a small physical feature that shows their connection; typically, either their eye color or hair color matches the color of their Road. So far, I’ve done this “realistically” in that a Blue wizard will have blue eyes and a Yellow mage will have yellow/blond hair. As many of you probably also know, it’s not unusual for even human anime characters to have “unrealistic” hair colors, like green or blue, that don’t naturally occur in humans. So, I have occasionally toyed with the idea of having those kind of hair colors be naturally possible for Kazephyrians or at the very least, for some Kazephyrian mages (Blue Road wizards with blue hair, for example.) However I am a bit concerned that this may be seen by many as over the top, or silly or campy by too many people, so I’m interested in any thoughts anyone has on the subject.

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